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Diamond Rings shines bright

Canadian rising star balances polish with the personal on 'Free Dimensional'

By Sean Plummer
MSN Canada

©Norman Wong
Diamond Rings (©Norman Wong)

John O'Regan is ready for his close-up. The Toronto-based synth-pop artist, better known these days as Diamond Rings, has (mostly) left the DIY world for the big time, having signed with EMI's Astralwerks to distribute and promote his new album 'Free Dimensional' internationally. (Montreal-based indie Secret City Records, which released Diamond Rings' 2010 debut album 'Special Affections,' will continue to represent O'Regan in Canada.)

For the independently-minded O'Regan, this bid for global success is less about leaving his past behind than it is about taking a chance that might never come again.

"I could very well have just kept pressing seven-inches on my own, with my own money, and mailing them out of my room and having to answer to no one," the immaculately-styled performer says during a recent interview at Toronto's Rivoli club. "But for me it's about always kind of trying to explore the unknown. So when a label like Astralwerks came calling, it was sort of -- my obsession with Kylie Minogue aside -- was really just about thinking, 'When else in my life could I ever have this opportunity?'"

O'Regan's first taste of notoriety came with The D'Urbervilles, an art rock band formed during his tenure at the University of Guelph that he fronted under the stage name John O. That band released two records, their self-titled 2006 debut and 2008's 'We Are the Hunters,' before O'Regan was sidelined by Crohn's disease. (The band is currently on hiatus, having changed their name to Matters in 2011.)

During his hospitalization and recovery, O'Regan started fiddling with a cheap keyboard and writing songs. The first to see the light of day was "All Yr Songs" in 2009. Alongside the music, O'Regan started developing a persona to go along with it: Diamond Rings. Helping him with his presentation -- which included a Max Headroom-style coif, rainbow-coloured eye makeup, and a flamboyant wardrobe -- was his cousin (and creative director) Lisa Howard, then a makeup artist for L'Oréal.

More singles and the album followed, which O'Regan -- now dubbed Diamond Rings -- supported with a month-long opening slot for Swedish singer Robyn who began her career as a record company-controlled moppet before going indie and reinventing herself as a respected pop singer. O'Regan spent much of his time on that tour watching the singer from the side of the stage and talking to her road crew. "Those are the kind of people I find really interesting."

Bing: Diamond Rings

From her O'Regan learned "what it takes to lead a really tight and well put-together band; to lead by example. And she has an incredible work ethic and is incredibly dedicated to what she does; [she] puts so much of herself into each performance. That sort of energy is contagious."

O'Regan wasted little time after the first album's cycle was complete, signing with Astralwerks and starting work on album number two. He chose Damian Taylor (Björk, Austra, The Prodigy) to produce what would become 'Free Dimensional.' Work on the record began in August 2011 at Taylor's warehouse studio in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood and wrapped this past January.

Calling Taylor a "spiritual or kind of emotional compass" for the record, O'Regan says he has an incredible ear for "the scientific side" of music.

"At a certain point, especially making electronic music, it does sort of come down to a numbers game: understanding things like frequency and pitch; tune. Not just understanding them in a casual way, like I do, but actually knowing how to create the fullest possible kick drum sound, and having the patience to sit up all night and edit a vocal take to make it just so. Those are qualities that I don't possess and that I never will possess and that I am fully comfortable with not possessing."

The result is highly-polished pop record which could potentially compete on a global scale. Indeed, O'Regan shared his ambitions with Taylor to make something world class early on.

"We had very clear discussions about our mutual desire to make the record as un-Canadian sounding as possible, in every respect," he says. "So I think certainly there was a conscious decision, both sonically and lyrically, to avoid falling into a sort of self-deprecating malaise."

Indeed, much of 'Free Dimensional,' especially first single "I'm Just Me" and "I Know What I'm Made Of"  are about coming into one's own, something O'Regan feels he has been doing day by day since starting Diamond Rings.

"They're about feeling that sort of power and control that comes from a sort of honing in on one's craft as an artist," he says of those songs. "Not to say by any means that I'm there yet. I mean, you're always chasing perfection in a way. But I feel like, with those songs and with this record, I'm much closer to that end goal than I was a year or two ago."

In service of that end goal, O'Regan and Howard have further refined Diamond Rings' already glamorous image, as evidenced in the futuristic "I'm Just Me" video, with its dancers, lasers, and '80s-inspired costumes. While O'Regan -- who cites Kylie Minogue, Bryan Ferry and Kraftwerk as musical and stylistic influences -- hopes listeners connect to his songs, he acknowledges the importance of image when it comes to making and marketing pop music.

"There is something, I think, really fantastic about those artists that embrace the fact that, yeah, they are on the stage and the spotlight is shining on them. And to some extent there's a responsibility as a performer to deliver. To put on a show."

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